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There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

The ‘Free Exhibition Design’ Myth.

Free stand design: all exhibition companies offer it, but is it really free?  The answer is usually written at the bottom of the design drawings, and begins with the letter ‘C’ with a circle around it.  That’s correct – copyright.  The ‘free design’ has caveats attached.  The main one is that this design is ‘free’ so long as the company that designed it also builds it.  Try and take that baby elsewhere and copyright will be enforced and a court case may well follow.

“I get gripper rods too?!”

What ‘free design’ really means is that ‘we’ve worked the design costs into the price of the stand so that you can’t see them in the quote’.  It’s the same as the carpet industry’s famous ‘free underlay and fitting’ line.  Go to a carpet store and ask them for some free underlay and for them to send a guy round to fit a carpet you’ve bought elsewhere and you’ll likely get an answer that couldn’t be repeated in front of the children.  It’s not a free service; it’s worked into the profit margin of the carpet.

It’s the exhibition (and carpet) industry’s worst kept secret.  We all do it.  Design costs are worked in to the gross profit margin that covers overheads and wages.  What ‘free design’ really means is “We will do a design tender for free and won’t charge you for it if you appoint someone else, but you can’t use that design if you don’t employ us as your stand builder.”  That’s a bit of a mouthful, which is why it’s usually shortened to the term ‘free design’!

“But he said it was free M’lud…”

But what do you do if you’ve asked three or four companies in to tender for your next stand and you really like one particular design, but the company who proposed it is way over budget, or you can’t stand to be in the same room as the sales rep?  You have the following choices:

  1. Steal the design and hope they don’t find out. I’m not advocating copyright theft here, but this does appear to be the first route that many companies take.  I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve had a design emailed to me with the sender asking “How much to build this?”  My first question is always “Do you own the design?” because if they don’t and can’t prove it, then I walk away.  If you are a client doing this, you are stealing, plain and simple.  If you are a stand company building another company’s design, you’re as guilty as the client.  I’ve given a few people a phone call to inform them that their design is being hawked around to find a better price.  Don’t do it.
  2. You can ask to buy the design from the designing company. They’ll be disappointed that they haven’t won the tender, but they’ll most likely agree to sell you the rights to their design.  Then you can get who you like to build it and still sleep at night.  It’s likely to cost you a couple of thousand pounds, but you’ll save yourself a potential court battle and keep your reputation intact.
  3. Invoke the ‘10% rule’. You may have heard the 10% rule mentioned in design circles: change the design by 10% or more and it becomes your design.  To the best of my knowledge this is not a legally binding term and I have no reference of it standing up in a court of law so please don’t quote me in your defence statement, but the 10% rule does at least seem more morally upstanding than tippexing out the original designer’s name and getting it built elsewhere!  When coming across point 1, I have in the past offered to do a fresh design using the preferred design as ‘inspiration’.  For me it’s not dissimilar to taking photos of stands you like at a show or trawling Google for design inspiration.  I’d hedge towards changing 50% or more personally, as 10% is too much of a grey area for me.  I’d much rather see the initial brief and bet that I can produce a better design.
  4. Ask the company to fix the issue you have – redesign within budget; change your sales rep; ask them to stop wearing Old Spice to meetings and staring at your boobs when you’re speaking… The reason you have for not wanting to use the company who produced your favourite design may be fixable, so if you don’t want the hassle of going somewhere else, you might want to have the conversation to see if the issue can be rectified.  If the reason is the salesman keeps staring at your cleavage then you may want to do so over the phone or by email!

You may of course get away with stealing a design without the designing company ever finding out, but in these days of social media it’s highly unlikely.  You might not get sued, but your reputation will suffer, especially within the exhibition industry where everyone seems to know everyone else’s business.

Can free really be free?

The only other option you have is find a stand design company that doesn’t invoke their copyright.  But they don’t exist surely?  I’m only aware of one, and that’s us.  I decided a couple of years ago that I had better things to spend my time on than enforcing copyright with companies that will never become clients anyway.  So I went and crafted our ‘Copyright Clause’ which essentially waives our copyright to our design tenders.  I figure that if someone’s going to steal it, they’ll do it anyway, and it’s only cost me a design to find out that they’re the sort of person that I don’t want to work with anyway.  I get to save time and more money chasing them through the courts, and don’t have the prolonged grief of working with them – it’s a win-win!

I do this because I back myself to be the best value (not cheapest) for the service that we offer and be likeable enough to work with.  If a prospective client doesn’t agree and they gave us a fair crack at winning the business, I’ll even send them the CAD files to use, totally free of charge.

Many designers today want to go the other way and charge for design tenders.  At the risk of upsetting them, I’d say that shows a lack of confidence in their abilities and product offering.  Free should mean free.  If you don’t mean it, don’t offer it.

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